Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Ryan Sieg, Jeremy Clements, B.J. McLeod Hearken to Era of Independents

“Names are made here.”  That is the tagline NASCAR has used when marketing the XFINITY Series for the past few years.  It is true that the XFINITY Series is the home (or former home) of some of NASCAR’s rising talents.  Most fans view the second-tier division through that lens.  They follow NXS racing to watch drivers like Erik Jones climb their way up the NASCAR ladder.  Fans celebrate breakthrough wins of emerging racers like Daniel Suarez.  They might even witness a surprise victory or two, like Justin Marks’ win at Mid-Ohio last weekend.  The XFINITY Series’ developmental nature is what sets it apart from Sprint Cup.  It is a core part of the tour’s identity today.  So it is easy to forget that the original intent of the XFINITY Series was completely different.

NASCAR officially organized what we now call the XFINITY Series back in 1982.  More accurately, the sanctioning body re-formatted its Late Model Sportsman Division with more standardized rules and a more concrete schedule.  However, the nature of the competition did not immediately change.  Instead of stars in the making, the so-called Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series featured a lineup of mostly independent owner/drivers.  These were not young, up-and-coming racers making a stop in the series as one part of a master plan for development.  In fact, the independents were often yeoman short track racers who did not necessarily have their sights set on the top division.

Looking at the winners’ list from 1982, there are not many then-future stars represented.  Geoff Bodine, who competed in Winston Cup regularly for the first time in ’82, made ten NXS starts and won at Darlington.  Dale Jarrett was another notable name who competed in the second tier series that year, finishing sixth in points.  However, the real stars of the series were racers like Jack Ingram, Sam Ard, Tommy Ellis, and Tommy Houston.  The four of them combined to win 14 of the 29 races that year driving for teams with either no Cup affiliation or, in Ingram’s case, a self-owned and operated team.  Many of the other victories went to more established Cup drivers (sound familiar?)

2016 Atlanta NXS BJ McLeod Mario Gosselin racing Russell LaBounty NKP
McLeod keeping it on track earlier this year at Atlanta (credit: Russell LaBounty / NKP)

Thirty-four years later, the landscape of the XFINITY Series is much different.  Amidst soaring costs and an onslaught of involvement from Sprint Cup teams, it is tough for a truly independent organization to survive.  Yet there are three regular NXS competitors who are trying to run their own teams with the resources that they have: Ryan Sieg, Jeremy Clements, and B.J. McLeod.  All three have underfunded operations but have showed up to every race this year.  Sieg and Clements have also been a major part of the Chase battle.

All three racers have much in common with the independents from 30 years ago.  Sieg, Clements, and McLeod all cut their teeth on short tracks.  They also race for their own teams, supported by their families.  Their ages all hover around 30, old enough to be veterans but with productive years left.  Most significantly, Sieg, Clements, and McLeod all have a home in the XFINITY Series, as long as they can keep their teams running.

However, the big difference between the independents of thirty years ago and today is that being an independent is probably not the end goal for Sieg, Clements, and McLeod.  Those three are trying to advance through the ranks of NASCAR just as much as Jones, Suarez, Darrell Wallace Jr, and Brennan Poole are.  But without a high-dollar sponsor and a development contract, options are limited.

Accordingly, the developmental nature of the XFINITY Series makes it easy to overlook the modern independents.  There is always a chance that an independent could snag a win somewhere and use it as a springboard to Sprint Cup (exhibit A: David Gilliland).  That would be the ultimate “names are made here” moment.  It would also be highly unlikely.  The names that really get made in the XFINITY Series are usually names that got mentioned in lower divisions, hence the sponsor and developmental support.

That does not mean, that Sieg, Clements, and McLeod are three random guys who just showed up at the track one day with a helmet and a fire suit.  Something else that fans tend to overlook is the XFINITY Series’ status as the second-highest level of stock car racing in the United States, and probably the world.  Sieg, Clements, and McLeod may regularly finish mid-pack, but to do so on this tour with a shoestring budget is nothing to sneeze at.  Besides, if a driver is faced with the option of running with limited resources or not racing at all, racing is the only way toward a better opportunity.

Still, Sieg, Clements, and McLeod are in the minority in a series that boasts drivers representing all of its eras.  Veterans like Elliott Sadler and Brendan Gaughan hearken back to the 90s when participation of veteran stars unique to the XFINITY Series peaked.  Justin Allgaier represents the drivers on the cusp of the big show, waiting to see if an opportunity in Sprint Cup rolls around.  Most would agree, however, that the big draw in the NXS is the prospects like Jones, Suarez, Wallace Jr, Poole, Ty Dillon, and Brandon Jones.

The independents deserve the appreciation of the fans as well, and not just because of what they represent historically.  Sieg and perhaps Clements could make the Chase and put themselves on par with the heavy hitters of the XFINITY Series, if only for a few weeks.  They would have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and wouldn’t that be fun to watch?

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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